Musical Fidelity X-T100 integrated amplifier Page 2

I used the X-T100 in two different systems. In my small-room system, it mostly drove the very sensitive Audio Note AN-E/Spe HE (for high efficiency), although it also spent some time driving the new DeVore Fidelity Gibbon Nines. In my large-room system, the Musical Fidelity amp drove my restored Quad ESL speakers. In all cases, the X-T100 required at least half an hour of warmup before sounding its best. It didn't appear to invert signal polarity.

Alrighty then: If recent press releases are any indication, Antony Michaelson and Musical Fidelity, Ltd. would be happy to see audio consumers become much more concerned than they already are with amplifier power. One recent MF fax went so far as to blame an industry-wide sales slump on those companies that don't make powerful amps, suggesting that otherwise hopeful shoppers are rendered apathetic by what they hear when they go into shops looking for upgrades, and thus fritter away their money on other diversions. I don't share that point of view—a theme to which I'll return in December's "Listening" column. In fact, the 50Wpc X-T100 was among the most powerful amplifiers I've had in my home in recent months, remarkably enough. Then again, for Michaelson to send me his amplifier anyway is a sign of both good sportsmanship and the sort of faith in his product that would encourage a closer look.

I'm sure my fondness for high-sensitivity loudspeakers also contributed to this opportunity to review what is essentially Musical Fidelity's lowest-power amp. Because of that, and because I'm an agreeable sort who's happy to abide by an equipment supplier's setup suggestions (at least at first), I started out using the X-T100 to drive the most efficient full-range speakers I have at hand: the Audio Notes.

I didn't care for the pairing. There was a colorless, almost chalky quality to instrumental timbres, such as the flutes in conductor Odd Gruner-Hegge's great recording of Grieg's incidental music for Peer Gynt (LP, RCA Victrola VICS-1067), which sounded gray instead of silver. And while dynamic contrasts seemed wide enough in a superficial, hi-fi sort of way, music remained utterly unstirring, whether played soft or loud. The experience was, in fact, a sort of a paradigm for the kind of high-end performance that seems to get the sound right but misses the music. On record after record, I heard fine imaging but little real presence, superficially good pacing but little momentum.

I replaced the Audio Notes with the DeVores: wonderful dynamic loudspeakers of higher-than-average (91dB) if not quite horn-high specified sensitivity. That was a step in the right direction, and the little Musical Fidelity amp came a bit closer to the kind of color, drama, and overall involvement that I want from an amplifier. Well-recorded pop music in particular—such as John Legend's Once Again (CD, Sony CK 680323) and Corinne Bailey Rae's Corinne Bailey Rae (CD, Capitol 66361)—was more fun with the X-T100 driving the DeVores instead of the Audio Notes. (The exact opposite is true with the 10Wpc Shindo Cortese, which loves to play those very records over the AN-Es.)

But I wasn't there yet, so I did what I tend to do with all powerhouse amps that come my way: I tried it in the other room, on my Quad ESLs (not as dangerous as it sounds, given that I've wired Wayne Picquet's fine protection circuits in parallel with my treble panels). The combination was wonderful.

I'm oversimplifying, because there was more to it than that. Although the pairing flat-out worked, and to a degree that eludes some or even most ESL-amplifier matchups—ie, there was none of the crazy frequency tilt one hears with a zero-feedback amp that simply can't cope with the Quads' similarly crazy impedance curve, and no apparent clipping—the X-T100 still needed to warm up a goodly while, even after being switched off only briefly. Nor do I mean to suggest that, of all the ESL-happy amps I've known, I loved it best. But I've never heard an affordable, full-function integrated amp do that well with that speaker. I could live with it, and that's saying something.

My notes are littered with examples, but the best may be the afternoon I entered the house and my wife was using the X-T100 and X-Ray CD player with the Quad ESLs to play Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-2). The experience was close to ideal in terms of combining musical involvement with sonic realism: There was momentum and lots of rhythmic nuance, and an especially compelling way of putting across the sweetness of the melodies—all that, plus real clarity and presence: singers and instrumentalists fairly leaping from the speakers. It was very cool.

For comparison's sake and the sheer fun of it, I connected the X-T100's Preamp Out jacks to my restored Quad II tube amplifiers, also to drive the Quad ESLs. The Quad II amps, which I adore, had a little more bass. But they also sounded less clear, open, and explicit than the X-T100. In fact, the Quad amps sounded downright fuzzy by comparison; if I had to choose the amp that I enjoyed most with my ESLs, it would have been the Musical Fidelity, blasphemous though that sounds.

Make no mistake: The combination did not test the dynamic boundaries of domestic audio. That's not what the Quad ESL is all about—and the fact that it has extreme strengths elsewhere speaks to its endurance as a true classic loudspeaker, and the enduring search for good, affordable amplifiers to work with it. The latter are rarer than you might think—but they've just gotten a little less so.

Because this is Stereophile and not Quadrophile, I suggest that the X-T100 deserves strong consideration for other specific loudspeaker loads. Even limiting our search to other speakers known less for dynamics and drama than for purity, presence, and melodic rightness, there are some superb choices—many of them classics—that I think would work well with this amp: Spendor's SP1/2, SP 2/3, and SP100 (née S100); Snell's original E, J, or K, and maybe even the weird but underrated Type 1; literally any of the better ProAcs, especially from the more sensitive Response series; and some of the Totems and Aperions. Think small, think affordable or used, think fun.

Ten years ago, there was no such thing as a perfectionist-quality integrated amplifier that was designed in the West, manufactured in the East, and priced between $1000 and $2000. Today the woods are full of them. How's that for progress?

Depends on who you are. For the time being, given the steadily growing selection, the situation is clearly best for the consumer—for whom the Musical Fidelity X-T100 offers a distinct alternative: a punchy, ostensibly powerful sound with decent onboard phono capabilities and very good styling.

The alternatives? The PrimaLuna Prologue One ($1195) offers better build for less money, and a more decidedly tubey sound for those who want that. On the downside, it's less powerful—and sounds it—and lacks a built-in phono section. The Cyrus 6vs ($1195) offers less tubey and slightly less powerful sound, with no phono stage—but it's still made in England, for those who want that. Speaking of which, the persistently Salisburian Naim Nait 5i ($1495) also lacks an onboard phono stage, and has yet a different sonic presentation from the others: forthright and substantive, not as open or airy.

I can't say for sure, but my sense is that the Musical Fidelity X-T100 would please me more than any of those integrated amps when it comes to driving my restored electrostats. (I didn't own original ESLs when the PrimaLuna was here for review; my Quads at that time were the easier-to-drive ESL-989s.) As for using it with a considerably more efficient loudspeaker, I'd look elsewhere: When it comes to that first watt, the Musical Fidelity X-T100 can be bettered; where it really shines is in watts 2 through 50.

Musical Fidelity, Ltd.
US distributor: Signal Path International
2045 120th Avenue NE
Bellevue, WA 98005
(704) 391-9337